Once a month at the Napa County Airport, the past becomes present for owners of restored airplanes. In hangars and near the tarmac, collectors and restorers display their Pipers, Cessnas and Beechcrafts for visitors to see up close, or as the jump-off point for small talk, friendly get-togethers — and memories.
At an airfield much visited by sleek, speedy and modern private jets, the Vintage Aircraft Display Day is a throwback to pistons, propellers and the youthful experiences of avid fliers.
“This is the type of plane I learned to fly in, 50 years ago,” said Bill Wheadon as he stepped into his 1947 Cessna 140, the same aircraft on which he had trained at an Illinois flying club. From that start developed a career as an airline pilot, during which he recorded 23,000 hours of flights before retiring.
In another hangar, John Montmorency pointed to his prized possession, a 75-year-old Beechcraft Model 17 Staggerwing biplane, named for a top wing set back from its bottom wing. When his father had begun teaching him to fly at the Monterey airport in 1967, the Beechcraft – an executive transport for Navy officers before World War II – became an early and lasting dream plane of his.
“It’s something I always wanted to fly from when I was a teen,” he said, stepping into a cockpit adorned with a gold-and-blue star-and-tracer pattern. “I thought it was really cool – went really fast for its time, about 190 mph, which was faster than military planes back then.”
Flying enthusiasts and airplane restorers — including members of the Napa Pilots Association and the local branch of the Experimental Aircraft Association — have gathered to show off their aircraft once a month at the Napa airport for about a decade, according to Jim Lyon, an exhibitor at the event. Planes are occasionally rolled into outdoor view, but most are displayed in their hangars, often with car-show-style signs detailing the year, make, model and history of each specimen.
“We’re a lot like vintage automobile people; in fact, a lot of us like old cars as well as old planes,” said Montmorency, who has taken part in the Napa display since 2008. “All of us are fairly technically oriented. We’re all into the little things – you really have to be, because there’s so much involved in having a safe flight in an old airplane.”
But unlike the spit-and-polish perfectionism of many show cars, the aircraft on display in Napa are often working antiques, restored and refitted but still carrying their owners to vacations, fishing trips or airplane shows around the West Coast. Hank Fore, a former Army paratrooper turned television executive, traveled from Livermore to Sunday’s gathering in the same 1968 Piper Super Cub that conveys him to fly-fishing trips in Idaho – complete with an extra underbelly fuel tank and fat wheels for landing on grassy airstrips far from cities.
The gathering of vintage planes is a revival of many owners’ airborne dreams from their youth – though Lyon, 66, hopes for another generation of fliers to carry on the tradition. “The one thing about general aviation is that we’re getting older, and not that many younger people are coming into (the hobby),” he said. “It’s getting more expensive and more technical all the time.”
In the meantime, the aircraft display remains a place for enthusiasts to share not only their historic planes but the personal stories attached to them — journeys to air shows, fishing trips, even sharing huckleberry ice cream and vodka with Idaho potato farmers.
“It’s like a passion, like golf or boating. We’re birds of a feather,” said Fore shortly before turning his bush plane toward the South Bay and back home. “It’s a common interest we all have; you have a common interest and everyone just lights up because people love to talk about it. The social aspect is really important for me; I’ve been here an hour and a half, looking at other people’s planes, and it’s been a lot of fun.”